Two years after the world first heard of a hitherto unknown virus, the COVID-19 pandemic appears far from over. While there has been dramatic progress in understanding infection, therapies, and of course vaccines, the new variants of the coronavirus that cause the disease continue to defy scientific achievement.
Somehow, the appearance of omicron, a super contagious variant that was registered in only days in the five continents and which is already the dominant one in the United States (73% of new cases), broke the dream of using the word “ the end ”in the headlines. What will happen in 2022? Experts paint a world that is already different and that may have to deal with coronavirus endemically (in simple words, when a germ is not eradicable).
COVID cases and deaths in the world (WHO MONITOR)
As of September 2021, the world already had at least 17 vaccines against COVID-19, and there are 300 potential options in the clinical and pre-clinical trial stages. By that date, 5.4 billion doses had been administered, indicates a document from the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO document, a strategic vision of action against COVID-19 by 2022, is extensive and complex but highlights something simple to understand: the critical need to coordinate the administration of vaccines, since if the huge gap between wealthy regions continues vaccinated and the poor who are not, it will be extremely difficult to corner the virus.
This inequity in immunization does not occur only at the global level, but at the country, state and county levels. And it is not always related to the lack of access to vaccines but to the politicization of public health and immunization.
The United States is an example. States like Massachusetts have vaccination rates of more than 80% in adults between 18 and 64 years old, and in others like South Carolina only 56.9% of that age group is immunized. And the difference is related to the political color that dominates the state, not access.
However, at the population group level, an equity problem linked to access and misinformation is revealed: the total number of Hispanics vaccinated ranges from 35% to 75%, depending on the state.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, as of December 8, 55% of the population was fully vaccinated, according to data from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). But when looking at countries and regions, the distribution of the COVID vaccine has not been equitable.
In the region, so far the five countries with the best percentages of vaccinated people are Chile, Uruguay and Argentina; and those that are far behind in the immunization process are Bolivia, Paraguay and Nicaragua.
Uruguay and Chile are the countries that have administered the most booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The WHO emphasizes that in order for the virus to really be stopped, the world has to coordinate. A daunting task, sure, but not impossible.
“The adoption of plans with an exclusively national focus, ignoring the global nature of the pandemic undermines efforts to limit the spread of the virus, “says the WHO document.
It highlights that this lack of coordination between countries will send weak signals to investors and manufacturers, and will affect the future availability of resources for research and development, manufacturing, purchasing and delivery of vaccines. Setting goals without coordination also runs the risk of further increasing inequalities in health care., with social and economic consequences for all countries.
From a reading of scientific studies and medical opinions, these are some of the possible scenarios for 2022:
The pandemic could become endemic, and seasonal. A pandemic is when a new germ spreads around the world. A pandemic is when there is an outbreak that can be controlled and ends. An endemic is when a microorganism is here to stay and strategies must be developed to control it, which may have to be modified over time. Experts believe that COVID-19 will become an endemic, seasonal infection like the flu, and that vaccines will surely have to adapt to the mutations of the virus.
Public health experts believe it could be like the flu virus, which generates between 410,000 and 740,000 hospitalizations annually and kills 62,000 people a year in the United States.
An annual booster of the vaccine may be needed. If the virus becomes seasonal, with peaks during cold months, a booster may be needed every year, also as in the case of the flu, in order to be protected from new variants of the coronavirus.
Wearing a mask could become common. Masks or masks could be seen frequently, even if the pandemic ends. If the virus becomes seasonal, it could be the norm to use them indoors during the months of peak coronavirus circulation.
Increased production and access to home tests. When the peaks in which the virus circulates most strongly can be controlled, the shortage of tests can be balanced and these will be more at the fingertips of consumers. One proposal from the Biden administration is that health insurers reimburse for the cost of these tests.